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What technicians want you to know about caring for brass instruments

For student musicians, an underperforming instrument can be the difference in whether they decide to continue with band or quit the program. With experienced players, subpar instrument condition can impact audition and job success. Repair technicians can and should be a partner with the director, parent, student, and professional in ensuring success: they are there to serve you, and most are passionate about music and its positive impact on people’s lives. Consulting on instrument care and maintenance and creating a repair schedule with a trusted technician helps prevent catastrophic events and unplanned bills. In our case, Yamaha generously donates complete instruments and parts to help us teach repair to the next generation of technicians, and they suggested that we help spread the word about proper instrument maintenance.

With that, here are some things to keep in mind.

 

Keep Your Brasswinds Lubed

Musicians can save money and downtime from practicing and performing if their instruments stay well-lubricated.

Slide grease: Grease slide tubing at least once per month. When applying, make certain the grease stays out of the inside of the tubes. For most musicians, any grease from a reputable manufacturer/supplier will suffice. Avoid petroleum jelly as it is a corrosive that promotes stuck slides. For slides moved for tuning when playing (such as trumpet first and third slides), cut the grease with valve oil or use valve-slide specific grease or oil. Also, push all slides in when finished playing.

See photo A.

A: Grease slides as often as needed, at least once a month. If the grease is too thick, cut it with a little valve oil. Avoid using petroleum jelly as it has proven to be a corrosive. Ensure the grease does not get inside the tube as it can block the bore.
What grease does: Brass and its similar alloys tend to corrode together if there isn’t a grease barrier between them. This corrosion can be natural within each metal’s properties or hastened by corrosion-promoting saliva, which infiltrates the space between sliding tubing on brasswinds.

If a slide becomes stuck: Your best bet is to leave it alone and take the instrument to a quality repair shop. The worst thing you can do is jerk-pull a stuck slide with a rag – it too often results in residual damage and a higher repair bill. An instrument with a stuck slide is likely so loaded with bore-blocking residue that it needs a repair shop’s cleaning expertise and other services beyond the stuck slide issue.

Piston valve oil: Oil piston valves every day the instrument is played. Three to six drops per valve is recommended. For most musicians, any valve oil from a reputable manufacturer or supplier will do. As a player matures, he or she may choose a brand based on how it makes the valves feel. Regardless of choice, the key is frequency of oiling.

See photo B.

B: Place valve oil directly on the top of the valve. Oiling through the slides or bottom caps is not effective. Three drops minimum, every day the instrument is played, will ensure playability for some time.
What valve oil does: Oiling your valves can actually improve how your brass instrument performs. With even as little as one thousandth of an inch of space between the valve and its casing, oil fills that space, often improving attack and overall ease of playing. Valve oil also blocks corrosion-inducing saliva from slowing valves down and flushes the debris that accumulates on the valve face down to the bottom cap, improving the lifespan of both the valve and the instrument. Sediment that accumulates between a valve and its casing acts as an abrasive, opening the space and degrading instrument playability.

If a valve becomes stuck: Your best bet is to leave it alone. Usually the valve is stuck because of a dent in its casing or because of bent parts that are pressing on the valves. Valves, being hollow and delicate, are easily damaged or destroyed. Do not use drumsticks, pens, pencils, nails, or other items that uninformed players sometimes use to free a stuck valve. By relying on a quality repair shop, repair charges can be kept to a minimum.

 

Keep it Clean

To keep clean brass instruments playing at their best and keep buildup inside the bore at bay, here are some simple tips:

D: An alternative to using swabs, Herco “Spitballs” are effective and fun for players to use weekly to keep their leadpipe and main tuning slide clean. The two sizes available cover trumpets to euphoniums.

 

C: Weekly use of a swab is an effective way of keeping a brasswind playing well for months. Combined with regular oiling and greasing, the instrument should stay in good shape until the instrument’s annual professional servicing.
Weekly home swabbing: Disassembling and “bathing” a brass instrument is rarely necessary: The time and 

expertise required to give a brass instrument a bath is often too much to ask of players. In addition, hot water and detergents can strip some lacquers. Most dirt and grime accumulates in the tubing leading off the mouthpiece (the leadpipe and main slide). Consider weekly use of a leadpipe swab or sponge spitball discs to keep your brasswind clean. This, combined with regular lubrication, can help your brasswind go up to a year before needing professional cleaning at the repair shop.

See photos C and D.

 

Oiling the tube walls: We recommend starting this practice after swabbing the leadpipe and main slide: squirt two teaspoons of valve oil directly into the leadpipe, then aggressively blow that oil through the instrument. Most debris makes its way then to the waterkeys. Combined with weekly swabbing or sponge disks and regular lubrication, instruments can easily make the year before annual servicing. Note: this is not a means of oiling piston valves.

See photo E.

E: Aggressively blowing two teaspoons of oil through the instrument via the leadpipe coats the tube walls, letting debris slide on through to the waterkeys, a good practice to employ after a professional chemical cleaning.

 

Tubas: For tubas, swabs and sponge discs usually do not work. There are flexible brushes (“snakes”) available to brush out the instrument interior but even these are not always practical for young players. The practice of oiling the tube walls described above, combined with regular lubrication, should keep tubas running well until annual servicing.

Annual professional cleaning (once per year minimum): Repair shops are equipped with the brushes and industrial chemical supplies that remove the hardened buildup that is unavoidable in brass instruments, even with regular swabbing and lubricating. Some shops offer ultrasonic cleaning which can be even more thorough than traditional cleaning methods. Professional cleaning typically includes replacing worn valve bumpers and waterkey seals – ensuring trouble-free rehearsals and performances. This annual instrument inspection also helps address any needed repairs such as dent work and soldering simultaneously.

 

Take Care of the Exterior

The finish on your instrument needs care, too. Most brasswinds are either lacquered or silver-plated. A person’s body chemistry can eat away either finish, so wiping the instrument down after playing with a soft cloth is a must to enhance finish longevity. Polishing cloths specific to lacquer or silver plating are available. Microfiber cloths work well, as does an oil-free chamois.

 

Caring for the Mouthpiece

F: Mouthpieces load up quickly. Brushing them once per week with a mild dish detergent is a smart practice. But don’t put them in the dishwasher, though: the detergents damage silver plating.
The mouthpiece is no less important than the rest of the instrument. Clean it once per week with a mouthpiece-specific brush and mild detergent. Do not put silver plated mouthpieces in an automatic dishwasher – the detergent damages the plating.

See photo F.

 

 

If the shank (small end tip) is dented, have the dent removed as soon as possible. See photo G. Rim plating can wear off. Do not place any 

G: A dented mouthpiece can choke sound and play havoc with intonation. Have dented mouthpiece shanks serviced as soon as possible.

exposed brass areas directly onto your mouth. If the rim or bowl plating is missing, either replace the mouthpiece or have it professionally re-

plated.

 

Have your mouthpiece inspected by a professional technician. Too often, mouthpieces are damaged or worn to the point where they inhibit musical progress.

Stuck mouthpiece? A mouthpiece puller is the only tool appropriate to free a stuck mouthpiece.

H: A mouthpiece puller is a must-have item for any band director. Encourage students and parents to have stuck mouthpieces properly pulled. Repair bills skyrocket when students and parents try to twist a stuck mouthpiece out with pliers or other inappropriate tools. Many repair shops do this for free.

Pliers, hammers, mallets, and door jambs, often used as common home remedies, simply do not work, cause more harm than good, and result in higher repair bills.

See photo H.

 

If a solder joint breaks: A broken solder joint needs to be professionally repaired as soon as possible. If not 

I: Zip ties are widely available and can effectively hold a broken solder joint until it can be professional re-soldered. Glues and tapes of all kinds do not work to hold broken solder joints. Have broken solder joints repaired as soon as possible. If not serviced soon enough, other solder joints give way from the increased load.

repaired, the stresses sustained by the remaining solder joints cause more solder joints to give way, escalating the repair bill.

Cinch a zip tie tightly around the broken joint to temporarily stabilize the broken solder joint until it can be professionally repaired.

 

See photo I.

Do not use rubber bands, tape or glue of any kind. The sulfur in rubber bands strips the finish. Neither tape nor glue are able to hold a solder joint and the residues are expensive to remove.

 

Inspect the Case

Often neglected, ensure the case is in good shape. Case repairs (and replacement cases) are not expensive.

  • The instrument should be snug in its nest and the nest should be snug in the case.
  • The mouthpiece should be secure in its nest.
  • A mouthpiece tossing about inside a case can cause a lot of damage.
  • The handle, hinges, and latches should be well attached and should work reliably.
  • Music, or any other extra item, should not be pressing on the instrument.

Every musician deserves an instrument that plays at an optimal level. These simple tips can help. Ensure that your local trusted repair shop is an ally in keeping instruments working at their best: every young musician counts!

To access more resources for band directors, please visit www.redwingmusicrepair.org/band/resources.html.

 

John Huth, Greg Beckwith and Lucas Pemberton are instructors in the Band Instrument Repair Program at Minnesota State College – Southeast Technical in Red Wing, Minnesota. Students in the program work on new, complete instruments donated by Yamaha. They are frequent presenters on instrument maintenance and troubleshooting geared toward players and educators. If you have questions, please contact them at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 



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